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THOMAS SOWELL The Big Lie -- with a human face

Friday, February 27, 2004

It may be too early in this election year to determine which will be the biggest of the Big Lies in this political campaign. However, my feeling is that it may be "the working poor." While there are working people who are poor, most poor people are not working full time, not working very long, or not working at all.
These are not matters of opinion. Census data make it unmistakably clear. When it comes to full-time year-round workers, there are more heads of households who fall into that category in the top 5 percent of income earners than in the bottom 20 percent -- in absolute numbers.
There was a time when you could legitimately contrast the idle rich and the working poor. But that time is long gone. Nevertheless, the image is still politically useful, so you are likely to see that image invoked again and again by candidates practicing divide and conquer politics, sometimes known as class warfare or by its more fashionable name, "social justice."
There is even a book by a New York Times reporter titled "The Working Poor." It was previewed by a long article in The New York Times and then given a huge and favorable review in -- you guessed it -- The New York Times. Journalistic incest lives.
The thesis of both media liberals and political liberals is that there are vast millions of people who work hard all their lives and still remain poor. The next chorus of this song is that only the government can save the day for such people. The grand finale is that politicians need to take more money out of your paycheck to buy the votes of those to whom they give it.
They don't express it like that, of course, but that is what it amounts to.
Are there genuinely poor people who stay poor? Yes. However grossly exaggerated the numbers, there are such people. But studies that follow the same individuals over time find that most of those in the bottom 20 percent of income earners are also in the top 20 percent at some other time in their careers.
Only a fraction of the people who are in the bottom 20 percent in income at any given time will be there for more than a few years. Of those whose pay is at or near the minimum wage, for example, most are young people or part-time workers, or both.
How much political traction can you get by wringing your hands over some high-school or college kid who is picking up a few bucks flipping hamburgers, while living with mom and dad?
Typical person
The solution to this problem, in both the liberal media and among liberal politicians, is to ignore the typical person who is simply passing through the lower income brackets on his way up and talk exclusively about the atypical person who stays at the bottom for life.
By focusing on those who work hard all their lives and still remain poor -- no more than 3 percent of the population -- and telling their personal stories endlessly, liberals can present the Big Lie with a human face.
There is an even bigger lie behind all this. That lie is the implication that the purpose of all this hand-wringing is to help the poor. But the poor are just the bait in a political bait-and-switch game.
The fraud becomes apparent the moment anyone suggests that there be means tests, so that the taxpayers' money will be spent only on the poor.
Those who pose as the biggest champions of the poor are almost invariably the biggest opponents of means tests. They want bigger government and the poor are just a means to that end.
Whether the issue is housing, medical care or innumerable other things, the argument will be made that the poor are unable to get some benefit that the government ought to provide for them. But the minute you accept that, the switch takes place and suddenly we are no longer talking about some benefit confined to the poor but about "universal health care" or "affordable housing" as a "right" for everyone.
Bait-and-switch advertising is illegal when unscrupulous businesses engage in it. But it is standard operating procedure in politics, especially during election years.
Creators Syndicate